A new pilot program involving about a dozen of Washington's community colleges, including Columbia Basin College in Pasco, aims to take the issue of time out of the process of earning a degree.

KENNEWICK, Wash. — College students typically complete a specific number of credits in a certain amount of time to earn a degree — whether it's an associate or a doctorate.

But a new pilot program involving about a dozen of Washington's community colleges, including Columbia Basin College in Pasco, aims to take the issue of time out of the equation.

The colleges are on track to begin offering in January a new online-based degree in business administration that is competency-based, meaning students can move as quickly as they can prove they have mastered what they're learning.

"We're more focused on what's learned, not time spent," CBC President Rich Cummins told the Herald.

There are pitfalls, specifically that students and educators will need to adjust their approach to learning, officials said. But they added that this is where education needs to go to be accessible and meet the demand for qualified workers.

"I think we all recognize we have different kinds of students," said Connie Broughton, project director for the Washington State Board of Community & Technical Colleges.

The individual colleges and state officials have spent months developing the pilot program.

They are expecting as many as 222 students from across the state to enroll in the first year. It will cost $1.4 million to get it all rolling, including hiring about a dozen instructors and other staff. Tuition is estimated to be lower than that for a traditional degree but is still being determined, college officials said.

Participating students will take 18 courses on the same material as any other student pursuing an associate degree in business administration, which typically takes two years, Broughton said.

But officials said a competency-based system could provide students a degree six months faster so long as they demonstrate knowledge. Students also will be able to transfer to four-year universities with the degree.

Online programs aren't new to community colleges and already reach thousands of students, college officials said. But a competency-based degree would be attractive to people who perhaps started a degree but weren't able to finish because of the time required or others with relevant experience in a technical area, such as veterans.

"Even our younger students are working in high school and developing good skills," said Janet Gullickson, president of Spokane Falls Community College in Spokane.

There are models on which to base the pilot program, including Spokane Falls' new competency-based certificate in business technology. But there will have to be an even stronger emphasis on assessment and testing, Cummins said, to ensure only students who have shown proficiency are moving forward.

Students may struggle, too, officials said. They'll be expected to earn the equivalent of a B on assessments before progressing to the next unit. They'll also need a lot of self-motivation if they want to earn their degree quickly.

"It turns all kinds of things on their heads," Broughton said.

College officials said they are confident they'll be able to make sure the program's graduates are fully trained. They're also taking steps to make sure students have guidance and encouragement along the way, as part of the seed money for the pilot would pay for completion coaches who would help students with questions and concerns.

Members of CBC's board also indicated at a recent meeting they were pleased with where the program was headed, with board member Kedrich Jackson specifically noting how it would rely upon adaptive learning to make sure students fully understand lessons.

"That's the best way to learn," he said.

Information from: Tri-City Herald,